Imagine Mrs. Smith is teaching her 5th grade English lesson when she hears a commotion outside her classroom. She steps into the hall to investigate and finds two boys in a physical fight.  Mrs. Smith immediately grabs each child by the arm and separates them. One boy complains that Mrs. Smith does not have the right to touch him and tells her to stop. Nonetheless, she takes each boy to the principal’s office and reports the incident. The next day, the principal asks to meet with Mrs. Smith and informs her that one of the boy’s parents is suing Mrs. Smith and the school for battery against the child. Will Mrs. Smith and the school prevail in the lawsuit, or is Mrs. Smith guilty of misconduct? What is the extent of her liability? Will she have to pay damages?

Tort laws offer remedies to individuals harmed by the unreasonable actions of others. Typically, these cases involve persons who suffer physical or emotional injuries as a result of the intentional or accidental conduct of another person. In these suits, the victims will seek a monetary award. Accordingly, school officials should be aware of their own tort liability in order to create effective policies to promote student safety.

An intentional tort is committed by an individual who intends to do harm to another person or understands that her actions may cause harm.  A common intentional tort alleged in schools is a battery.  Battery is described as an intentional harmful or offensive touching of another person. In the school context, a battery can occur anytime a teacher or administrator touches a child in a harmful or offensive manner. Another common intentional tort that might be alleged on school grounds is assault. Assault involves an overt attempt to physically injure a person or create immediate apprehension of being injured. However, unlike battery, no actual physical contact is required for an assault to occur. The person committing the assault must simply create a feeling of fear or apprehension of being injured in the mind of the victim.

Most often, teachers are accused of committing a battery or assault in the course of disciplining a child or stopping a student from injuring another student.  Generally, courts are reluctant to interfere with the teacher’s authority to discipline students. Courts will typically consider whether it was necessary to separate or remove a student due to threat of harm to students or staff in determining whether there will be liability.  Courts have found teachers guilty of battery and assault when the conduct is deemed cruel or excessive, and when the teacher intends to do harm to the student.

Negligence is another type of tort that is often characterized as the failure to exercise the standard of care that a reasonably prudent person would have exercised in a similar situation.  School officials owe students the duty to provide reasonable supervision and educational instruction, and maintain an educational environment free of obvious dangers. A teacher’s liability will generally hinge on whether he/she can anticipate foreseeable dangers under the circumstances. Although educators cannot guarantee student safety in all situations, they are required to foresee the possible consequences of their own actions and take steps to provide a safe learning environment. If a teacher fails to anticipate a foreseeable risk and that failure causes an injury to a child, the teacher could be liable for damages.

Courts recognize instances where educators have a defense for their tortious conduct.  Defenses absolve educators from full or partial liability for damages. Among the intentional tort defenses available to educators are self-defense, defense of others, and defense of property. To invoke any of these defenses, the teacher must act during the incident and exercise a reasonable degree of force under the circumstances. Likewise, a teacher may use reasonable force in disciplining a student under Arizona law, including corporal punishment, if allowed by the school governing board.  (A.R.S. § 15-843(B)(2)).

In the case of negligence, the law also recognizes situations where students are at fault or their actions contributed to their own injury. The two major categories of fault-based defenses are: assumption of risk and contributory negligence. Assumption of risk means that the student understood the inherent dangers of a situation and assumed the risk of engaging in an activity (e.g., football, wrestling, rugby, etc.). This can be a complete defense and bar the victim from recovering any damages. Contributory negligence, by contrast, involves a scenario where the victim’s own actions contributed to the harm suffered. Arizona follows a comparative standard and courts will compare each person’s level of fault and assign an appropriate percentage of liability. The amount victims can recover will be reduced by their own percentage of fault.

School officials can reduce the risk of tort liability by creating effective policies to promote student safety and effective teacher supervision. These policies may include training sessions for teachers and school personnel, as well as guidelines to follow in the classroom. Due to the complexity of these issues, schools should seek legal advice on how to create appropriate policies and implement them. Schools are also encouraged to contact an attorney regarding any specific situation involving student injury or potential school liability. This article is intended to be a general discussion of school personnel tort liability and is not intended to provide legal advice regarding a particular incident that may arise.

 

This blog should be used for informational purposes only. It does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader and should not be construed as legal advice. If you need legal advice regarding Breaking Up that Fight: Teacher Tort Liability, or any other Education Law matter, please feel free to contact Cathleen M. Dooley at  480.461.5335,  log on to udallshumway.com,  or contact an attorney in your area. Udall Shumway PLC is located in Mesa, Arizona and is a full service law firm. We assist Individuals, families, businesses, schools and municipalities in Mesa and the Phoenix/East Valley.